Saturday, May 28, 2016

We walk into a bar in Delaware

Hutch's Pub
Faithful readers of Dean and Mindy walk into a bar (are there such people?) know there is a running debate here about whether certain places are bars or restaurants (using the words "grill" and "pub" can add to the confusion). This week there's a different debate. Is Hutch's Pub a bar or a pool hall? (I think we can quite certain say Hutch's is not a restaurant, even though it's possible to order food at the bar, because they post kitchen hours which differ from the bar hours. Since there are hours that Hutch's open and food is not served, we can safely rule out restaurant; even though their wings are quite tasty.) But might it be a pool hall?

Besides the pool team schedules, APA (American Poolplayers Association, not the American Psychological Association) schedule, and, of course, the pool tables, there were other billiard decorations to be found. I particularly liked the pool cue with the scope and the "break" mirror.

As nearly as we could figure, almost all the customers there that night were there to play pool. Only one of the two pool tables was in use, though, apparently because only two teams were playing that night. Some nights there are four teams, and on those nights both tables are in use. But there is only league pool play on Wednesday and Thursday nights. So five nights a week, it's clearly not a pool hall. No doubt about it, Hutch's Pub is a bar, in any alcohol-related definition of the word.

We sat at the bar, and Mindy ordered an Angry Orchard cider. I asked for a bourbon and water and let Kaitlyn the bartender make the call on the brand (Jim Beam), and accepted when she offered ice and lemon. Uriah Heep was playing loudly, and a guy in the bar called out, "I seen these guys in concert, man! First freakin' Scorpion and now this! Who's programing the jukebox? I saw them when I was 17 and I was so f...ed up!" (Other oldies heard through the night included John Mellencamp's "Pink Houses" and "Tuff Enuff" by the Fabulous Thunderbirds.)

I talked to a couple seated near us, Jeanie and Walter. Walter is from Switzerland, Jeanie is American; they met online. In the four years they've been together, they've traveled the States extensively and been to Switzerland five times. They don't only shoot pool -- Walter is active in a Swiss Shooting Club in the area.

I asked them our two standard questions, "What makes for a good bar?" and "What makes for a good church?" For a bar, Jeannie said it was a matter of the friendly people. She said the people at Hutch's can be rowdy, but they aren't violent. She comes alone to the place every other week to play pool and always feels safe. Walter said it's a matter of the general atmosphere. He doesn't like big bars, but prefers a place where you can get to know people. They both liked the fact that there was a consistent crowd at Hutch's. They said we'd just missed Tom, the owner, a man who knows his customers. As for what makes for a good church, Jeanie said, "No priest, no minister, no pastor." She described herself as a "recovering Catholic." She said they were married in a Swedenborgian church in Wilmington, The Church of the Holy City, about which they were quite enthusiastic.

Mindy talked with Kaitlyn, our bartender. She's been working at Hutch's for nine months, and when Mindy asked what made a good bar,  Kaitlyn said good drinks and friendly people. "We call this a Cheers bar. Everyone knows everybody's name. I love my little Cheers bar." As for what makes for a good church, she said, "I really feel I've got to go with friendly people again."

Mindy talked to another woman, Marty, who wasn't there to play pool. She said that in a bar she looks for "a good drink with decent people; it has to be safe."  When asked about a good church, she told Mindy about her own church as well as a few other historic churches in the area. She's a member of Christiana Presbyterian Church, which she described as being a community base. "It's not a big church" she said, "but it's been around since the Revolution." She talked about the church's mission trips, women's groups, and VBS. "We're a regular mainline Presbyterian Church."

I asked one other patron, Dave, our two questions. He said he's been coming to this bar for 8 to 10 years. He values people in a bar; the staff and the customers. He likes being at a place where the people are "genuine" and won't stay if they aren't. The staff needs to be attentive to the needs of the customers. Like everyone I spoke to, he was highly complementary of Kaitlyn. (As we were talking, she was standing nearby and said, "You better say good things about me, I'm serving you drinks.") Dave does go to church (The Love of Christ Church), and he values a pastor who relates to people. If the pastor in his sermons "hits home," it's a good church, Dave said.

Before leaving, we needed to watch Jeanie finish her game. She sunk the nine ball, winning her game. We congratulated her and said goodbye to folks, including the people smoking outside who we'd met inside. We were glad we went to Hutch's. It's a place for a good game of pool and it has a good pool of people.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

We walk into a bar in Maryland

Hank Dietle's Tavern
Hank Dietle's sign
"People say Hank Dietle's is a step back in time," Kevin said, "It's not, this is time." That claim was made in a variety of ways by patrons of this long time Maryland establishment on the evening we visited. The building itself is 100 this year -- the inverse of the establishment's liquor license, which is numbered "001" (allegedly because it was the first license issued after prohibition).

The building wasn't built to be a tavern, but rather a general store with two gas pumps in front. According to local legend the store was an anomaly. Supposedly, this location has been the home of a tavern or pub since colonial days.

Old is the rule at Hank Dietle's. Even the wooden bar is secondhand, purchased in the 1940s after a fire destroyed the original. The owner of the place found one at a bar in Baltimore and sawed it to fit the space.  It's older than the building.

There are some new things inside Hank Dietle's. There are now several television screens in the tavern while there used to be just one. (Two of the screens were playing the same Nationals game while we were there.) I assume the one pool table has been there for quite a while, and there's a rather cool Noir Detective pinball game, as well as a video casino game on the bar.

You might say the menu is limited. They serve wine and beer. There are a variety of bottle beers, canned beers, and beers on tap. As for wine, the night we were there, the choices were merlot or chardonnay, both from a box. There are also waters and sodas, and all the options were visible in the fridge behind the bar. Outside, the Corn Beef King food truck offered food to go (eating it the bar was perfectly acceptable), but the food options inside were on a rack (a variety of Utz chips).

A jazz duo, an acoustic guitar and a standup bass, played a great variety of tunes from "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" to the "The Flintstones" theme. Though a high tech juke box is in the place, most nights there is live music, with Rockabilly on Saturday nights (and the juke box isn't played while live music is available).

We visited on a beautiful warm night, so the porch outside was crowded with people still enjoying the sun when we arrived after 7:00 pm. We made conversation with folks inside, asking the questions we ask every week, "What makes for a good bar?" and "What makes for a good church?"

After Mindy ordered her merlot and I ordered my pale ale, I struck up a conversation with a Kevin, who was sitting alone at the bar. In answer to my question as to what makes for a good bar, he said, "Cold beer." He also answered with just two words about what made for a good church, "The homily." But when I asked, he was happy to elaborate on his answer. "The homily should make the Biblical message applicable to the 21st century. Last Sunday, I heard a great one. If I gave you $168.00 and asked for one back, would you give it to me?"

I said, "Sure."

"Well, God has given you 168 hours in the week. Is it so much to ask to give Him one hour at Mass?"

Turns out, Kevin gives more than one hour a week to church. He said he goes pretty much every day. "Have you ever been in Best Buy with twenty television sets blaring all around you? I think all of life is like that these days, always something coming at you. But when I go to church, I feel like I can turn off those TVs one at a time and have some peace," he told me.

After that, I talked to a fellow named James, the first of two people for the night who agreed to answer our first question, but not our second. He was older than we are, a native of the area, who hadn't come to Dietle's until a couple of years ago. "You don't come here for the ambience," he said, "But it is unique and has its own style. You can't help but love something that's been around forever. It has a charm you can't find anywhere else."

James said he wouldn't answer the question about what made for a good church, but he told me what he thinks about Christians following a god who had been killed. I mentioned that Christians believe Jesus didn't stay dead. He let me know he thought the idea of the resurrection was absurd. He went on to explain his theories of humanity being brought to earth by space aliens, and his understanding of the seven chakras of the human body.

Meanwhile, Mindy was talking to people at the other end of the bar. Savannah and Wes were both happy to say what they thought made a good bar.

Savannah said, "When you walk in and you feel like it's where you're supposed to be."

Wes added that the environment and people made the difference. He said "funniness and fun" mattered.

Savannah said, "I'm not going to lie. This is my first time here and this guy is what makes me feel like I'm supposed to be here." When I asked what made for a good church, she said, "I'm going to let Wes answer all my questions from now on."

Wes was happy to take the opportunity. Even though he was just waiting at the bar for change for a game of pool, he was happy to chat while he waited. A good church, he said, had "loving caring people who make you feel loving and caring while you're there." He also felt it should be non-judgmental.

After he got his change and a pitcher of beer, two women came up to sit at the end of the bar. Mindy asked them her questions, too.

Pam was closer, so she answered first. Like Frank, she said she appreciated the ambience of this place, "but that's not the whole thing, you feel like you can be yourself." She said the things she valued in a church were racial diversity ("that's very important to me") and good music. She also recommended churches in states we haven't been to yet, which we appreciated.

Mindy also talked to a young woman named Amanda, who happened to be Pam's daughter. She said she didn't really go to bars, but had been working at Hank Dietle's for almost two years. The owner had gone through her checkout line at Safeway a number of times, then asked if she wanted to work some shifts at Hank Dietle's. She did say, though, that she felt that the important factors for a bar were that it should be inexpensive, it should be a good place to meet someone, and there should be screens to watch games.

When Mindy asked her what made a good church, Amanda said she appreciated a pastor who could put Scripture in context to make it understandable. She had been raised in a Unitarian Church, but now was looking for something more "Christian," with engaging sermons that are "more like engaging lectures rather than talking at you. It should have a welcoming community."

Kieran, who was tending bar, told us he'd only been working there a couple of days. But he was friendly and welcoming -- and there's something about an Irish accent that earns extra points in our bartending book. When asked about what makes for a good bar he said, "Customers and bartenders. The end". (He expanded on this a bit, pointing out that a person could have the same beer at home as at a bar, but the company and the people serving make the experience completely different in a bar.)

As for what made for a good church he said, "Lack of judgment for a start. Churches tend to not practice what they preach...They should have an open door and a welcoming attitude."  He feels that some of the core philosophies of what religions believe has been lost -- for example, he said, "come ye, come ye all" and "judge not, lest ye be judged."

I felt we needed to talk to the musicians before we left, if only to thank them for playing the theme to the Perry Mason Show. Since they hadn't started their next set, we were able to ask them our questions. Steve, the guitarist, thought a bit about what he appreciates about a good bar. He said, "you don't go to just one kind." He said that this was the kind of place he liked to come for a beer with friends, but if he was taking his wife, she'd probably prefer a fancier place. He spoke affectionately about Hank Dietle's history and tradition, and said a good bar offers a warm welcome but "you don't want to pay $20.00 for a cocktail."

Thierry, the standup bass player, said that a good bar should have a good choice of drinks, good music and a pretty bar maid. He pointed out that while Hank Dietle's was a very interesting place, it wasn't typical for the area (we'd already heard that this was the only bar that was just a bar; everyplace else in the county is primarily a restaurant). Thierry declined to answer our church question, but Steve said that a good church should have a sense of community the people in it should agree with each other theologically, politically and sociologically.

As we were leaving, I had another chance to talk to Pam. She said our conversation made her think about something. She said that she would be more willing to go to a church if she knew it would be as welcoming and nonjudgmental as a bar, where she didn't have to worry about being criticized for her clothes or her behavior. We certainly were made to feel welcome at Hank's Dietle's.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

We walk into a bar in Washington D.C.

Church and State: the American Bar
Sometimes we feel we have no choice about which bar we should go to and write about. We had to go to an Irish pub on St. Patrick's Day. We had to go to the bar in a Mexican restaurant on Cinco de Mayo. When we discovered a bar called Church and State two blocks from where we were staying in Washington, D.C., we had to go there. It's thematic to the location and to our journey to visit a church and a bar in every state. As if that wasn't enough reason, we're patriots who love the red, white and blue, and this is a bar that loves America.

We were tempted (okay, I was tempted) by the bar downstairs (but under the same ownership) with a video game theme, but we walked up to the second floor and waited to be seated as the sign at the top of the stairs told us to. The decor primarily went with the Church theme -- stained glass, pews, and a pastor's study. For the State theme, there were a few eagles, but the real emphasis on patriotism was in the menu.  

It's printed like an old timey newspaper called The Church & State Times.  The preamble to the drink list reads, "This not a Church. D.C. is not a State. But every bottle, whether heavenly or devilish, comes from the United States, its territories or possessions. We are the first all-American cocktail venue. Our craft cocktails take time, we appreciate your patience and invite you to be free and brave."

In other words, disappointed Commies, you won't find much vodka at Church and State, just libations originating on this continent. As a companion website says, they're "converting vodka drinkers to gin drinkers one cocktail at a time." So the liquor served is Yankee-made: bourbon, vermouth, brandy, etc. I ordered a Jack Rose cocktail, said to be invented right there in Washington. Mindy went with a Mint Julep in honor of Nyquist's win at the Kentucky Derby last weekend.

There is a church side to the menu as well -- you can order from the Seven Deadly Sins or Hymns sections. Though we considered some of those selections, we decided to keep things separated.

Patrick was sitting next to us at the bar. He's a regular, working in the area but not living nearby.  He appreciates the small and intimate atmosphere of Church and State, since he doesn't like big bars or sports bars. In answer to what makes for a good bar, he continued with other things he appreciates about this bar. He likes the creativity of their cocktails and likes to watch the bartenders work. He likes to take mixology tips for making drinks at home.

I asked what he would look for in a good church. He said he didn't go to church, but thought people might go to church for community. He didn't have much more to say about what made a good church, though he pulled up a picture on his phone of a closed church in D. C.that was transformed into a large art project.

Like many Washingtonians, our bartender Victoria is involved in politics. Bartending is a side job for her; she has a fulltime job in the District, working for what I agreed is a "white hat" cause. She says she enjoys work at the bar as a creative outlet, that it's "another skill that will the long run," as she has short conversations with people and is able to quickly turn the direction of the talk.

Mindy asked her our questions, "What makes for a good bar?" and "What makes for a good church?" Victoria said the booze is the obvious first thing -- having good options for people to choose. For her, though, she said that "even with good options, you need a good atmosphere." She likes a place that is a "little sexy, a little seductive," but that as a local, "I like being known -- the Cheers atmosphere." (She'd heard me mention Cheers when I was talking to Patrick. I need to speak more quietly.)

As for church, Victoria said she had some bad experiences, but didn't elaborate. She said community was good, but she wanted a degree of anonymity along with it. She doesn't want a small town atmosphere, with people judging and everybody getting in her business.

We'd picked a fun night for talking to staff. Christopher, who works there, though we forgot to ask what his job is, said that a bar should have knowledgeable staff who know their drinks, and it should have a low key, intimate atmosphere. He said a church should rebuke judgment and be welcoming and accepting. He really doesn't think people in a church should pass judgment.

I also talked to Ron, one of the bar's managers, who certainly had opinions on what made for a good (great) bar.  Like everyone else we talked to that night, he mentioned the importance of atmosphere and ambiance (which was certainly something Church and State has down).  But he also emphasized the importance of customer service, hospitality and quality. He said it's important to have a clear vision of what a place should be. And perhaps above all, a place needs consistency, maintaining a standard of excellence. Ron has been in the business for twenty years, and he's learned the importance of caring for customers.

I asked Ron what makes for a good church, and he said the "subject matter of the minister matters" and, "excuse the pun, the congregating of the congregation." If there are young and old together, he believes that says something. He says a church must also set a bar of excellence and maintain that bar (but a church does not usually "maintain a bar," just to be clear).

Washington D.C. was recently ranked by the Daily Beast as the nation's "second drunkest state" (while acknowledging, like Church and State, that the District of Columbia isn't actually a state) The rankings are based on the average number of drinks consumed by adults, the percentage of the population classified as binge drinkers and heavy drinkers, based on information from market researchers and the Centers for Disease Control. 

Church and State Bar isn't about getting drunk; it's designed to give people an experience they will remember rather than forget, and one that will keep them coming back.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

We walk into a bar in Virginia

Los Toltecos Mexican Bar and Grill
We were very excited to go out on the night of Mexican Independence Day. (Wait... Oh, sorry about that. Apparently I got that wrong.) We were very excited to go out on the anniversary of the Mexican Army's victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, because Cinco de Mayo has become a big thing in the States over the years. Television networks have come to expect lower numbers on the holiday, because people do go out drinking.

If Mindy and I are anything, we are conformists, so we looked for a Mexican-themed place to visit in Sterling, Virginia. Many other people felt compelled to do the same. There were no spaces left in Los Toltecos parking lot, so we parked across the street in the Safeway lot. (Yes, fellow Californians, they have Safeway here. Our gift cards will be put to good use.)

When we went inside, all the tables were taken. There was a pretty good throng around the bar. Finding a place to stand where we wouldn't get in the way of the wait staff was tricky.

We overheard one couple as they arrived. The guy said, "Man, this is serious!" And she said, "I told you." We're not sure if they actually went in, because last we saw of them, they were still outside, possibly waiting for friends to swell the throng.

You know those movies where a tremendous crowd drives a couple apart? Los Toltecos was kind of like that, sort of, because I (Dean) ended up going outside to try to talk to people while Mindy stayed at the bar to order drinks.

After awhile, she got close enough to the bar to reach a drinks menu; she looked for the margaritas (because, what with the holiday and all, we had to order margaritas. I guess we could have bought Coronas or Dos Equis, but we really aren't beer fans.) and ordered the Los Toltecas Original with a JalapeƱo Margarita for me. Her drink came in a red Solo party cup (the kind you see in every teen comedy party scene since American Pie), and my drink came in a round goblet that seemed to weigh as much as a small bowling ball.

While she was waiting for the bartender to mix our drinks, Mindy talked to the two guys who let her get close enough to the bar to order. She asked them our weekly questions ("What makes for a good bar?" and "What makes for a good church?"). Joseph said he values a patio because sitting outside and drinking is one of his favorite things.

Sadly, rain that evening was keeping everyone inside and adding to the claustrophobic (though lively) ambiance. Joseph's friend Connor agreed that a patio was good, but he felt something else was more important: "I would say good service, but you expect that anywhere. So, I'll say a kind staff." He said that kindness went beyond competent work to respect for the people being served.

As to what makes a good church, Joseph* said there should be passion for individual members of the church from everyone, not just leadership. That's the quality that drew him to the church he attended in his teen years.  

Connor said that during his elementary years, he had attended a church and a private school that had provided him and his sister (who had attended through high school) valuable counsel for career goals and life beyond high school.

Meanwhile, I was in front of Los Toltecos, hoping to talk to the exiled smokers outside, where there were more reasonable sound levels. I chatted with Timur, who I think, based on his accent, was from Eastern Europe. I asked what made for a good bar, and he said, "I am debating the number one thing for a good bar between the surroundings and the people, but I guess the people are part of the surroundings so that would make it number one."

When I asked what made for a good church, he gave me a bit of his background. His mother is Muslim and his father is Christian, and he feels it is important to learn about all religions so that one can make a sober judgment about faith. He said it's important that a church is welcoming. But if they are judging you, thinking you will go to hell if you don't join them, then they're not welcoming. He compared judgmental people to a saying of his boyhood, "A drowning animal barks loudest as it is about to go down."

A friend of Timur's, Marjorie, came outside and graciously agreed to answer my questions. She said a "Spanish bar" is quite different from an American bar because it "gets crazy." She said that she could "go to an American bar with my girls, have a drink and go home, that's it." At an American bar you can smile at a guy, and it's just considered a friendly gesture, but at a Mexican bar the guy will assume there's more to it and may well hassle the woman who smiled. At an American bar there is respect.

She said she was at Los Toltecos with friends; her sister is the designated driver. She said her husband was not much of a drinker, so he was waiting at home, as were her parents. She went on to tell me that she came to this country when she was sixteen, and that she loves America. "It is the best country. You need to work hard, but there is a time for fun, if you're responsible. If you don't go crazy, you'll be happy."

She told me that one of the things that she appreciated most about this country is that it allowed her mother to have the heart transplant that saved her life. Her mother went to the top of the list because she was a Christian woman. The hospital didn't consider her religion, of course, but they did take into consideration that she had never smoked and didn't drink.  They considered her a perfect candidate. Her family had been quite worried as the heart was flown into the Fairfax hospital during a snowstorm that could have proved a deadly delay, but the heart arrived in time. After only two weeks on the waiting list, the operation took place. Marjorie said her mother had gone from 94 pounds to 140 (a more healthy weight for her), and you could never tell by looking at her that she had a heart transplant.

When I asked what made for a made for a good church, Marjorie said, "I like Christian, not Catholic. I believe in one God." It was quite obvious she was thinking of her mother's church.

On a crowded bar night, it is ironically more difficult to find people to talk to (we certainly weren't able to talk to a bartender or even any of the staff). But we're glad that, at Los Toltecos, we found the really delightful people we did.

*Joseph is a professional photographer. So Joseph, if you're looking at this, we hope you aren't excessively offended by the amateurish photo quality. Any suggestions will be most gladly received.